Express FM: Interview with Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson #6

Every week, Express FM runs a live show dedicated to news about the Coronavirus in Portsmouth, as Robbie James interviews a range of local people, including politicians, experts, residents and businesses. On 3rd June, Robbie spoke to Gerald Vernon-Jackson about the changes that have taken place in the city this week as lockdown is eased.  Transcribed by Peta Sampson.

Robbie James: Every week [Portsmouth’s Covid-19 cases and deaths statistics] get more positive and every week they give us more hope.

Gerald Vernon-Jackson: Yes, it’s really good. It looks as if the number of people who have caught this virus in Portsmouth has stalled. We’ve got no outbreaks in care homes, the numbers of people who’ve been tested positive in the City don’t go up and actually, it seems as if we’ve been one of the most successful places in the country about stopping the infection. There are, I think, 313 councils in England and in terms of infection rates we are at number 299 and for an incredibly densely populated city that’s an amazing achievement.

What do you put it down to?

I think because people have worked hard and been sensible about doing social distancing [and] staying at home. They’ve taken it really seriously and I think that everybody just knows what the rules are. Not everybody obeys it all the time but very large numbers of people do almost all the time.

The Prime Minister said [on 3rd June] that Covid-19 tests will be turned around in 24 hours by the end of the month. Do you think that is, for Portsmouth, realistic?

My worry is that the letter yesterday [to the government] from the Head of the UK Statistics [Authority] said that the numbers being used in the report about testing in the UK [were] not being done in an open and transparent way.

The numbers are being used for political reasons so include tens of thousands of people that have been sent home kits. Nobody counts how many are sent back and how many of the people get results. I hope the testing system gets better. There are reports today that one in five of the negative tests are wrong, [i.e. 20% of positive cases may be missed by the test]. I think there’s a long way to go and the government really has to up its game.

We’ve got to make sure that everyone is tested relatively frequently [so] people [can] isolate if they’ve got the disease but don’t have any symptoms – because they’re the people who, now the lockdown has been released a bit, will be going out and about and seeing other people, and potentially passing the disease on to others without any knowledge that they are doing so.

That’s where the problem is at the moment, if we are starting to see these relaxations of lockdown rules. [Some people may] trust that the testing is working behind the scenes but what you’re alluding to is it’s not, necessarily?

Well, I think the numbers that are being tested and successfully getting results are many fewer than the government are announcing, which is why the Head of the UK Statistics [Authority] wrote to the Health Secretary yesterday.

I think that as we learn more, we learn where there are potential problems. I was talking to people today about home carers and we are putting in steps to ensure that we’ve got additional capacity, because if somebody is a home carer and they’ve got the disease but they don’t have any symptoms, then they’ve not only taking it round to the clients that they support and look after at home, they are also taking it around to other people. The members of staff that work with them then take it to another group of people.

There’s way more testing that we need to be doing and not just once, we might need to test some people on a really regular basis if they are looking after people who are vulnerable.

Do you think that there is anything more councils can do? Any more we can do on a smaller scale?

No, because this has got to be done nationally, so we just need the government to up their game on this. If you look at places that have been successful, like South Korea and Taiwan, who should have been hit really badly, the way they did the testing and tracing worked really well and they did it from the beginning. We seem to have been coming [at] this very late and I think that’s going to a problem that might mean we get a second wave.

Do you think we will get a second wave?

Absolutely. I think if we look at what happened last weekend where it was almost like the top came off the pressure cooker, there were groups of people out on the Common, on the beach, who weren’t keeping two meters apart from each other.

My fear is that that will produce a new peak. I do hope we manage to get by without us being hit again. This country has got one of the worst death rates of anywhere in the world and let’s just hope it doesn’t get any worse.

[Some beaches have been closed]. How is Portsmouth going to be regulated in the coming weeks and how will [people] be held to account if they break the rules?

Well, in Britain we’ve always operated on a basis of self-policing. There will be patrols around from the community wardens but there are not very many. We rely on people doing the right thing in this country, because it is the right thing and that’s going to be a really important part of what happens over the next few months.

I think we are lucky with our seafront, the beach is long and there is actually a lot of space so people can distance from each other, if that’s what they are going to choose to do. I hope the police are able to educate people and try to make sure that people behave well but it’s down to us as a community.

In exactly the same way as with rubbish; we, as people, cause the rubbish, we should take responsibility for it and take it home and get rid of it and not just dump it around the place. We, as members of the community, are the people going down to the seafront, going out to the public places, we just need to make sure that our behaviour means we are not putting other people at risk.

We can say all this about policing ourselves, but the harsh reality is that it’s not always happening like that. How have your communications been with the police and how are they likely to enforce these rules more?

The police will be out and about but we’ve got to be realistic that the police in this patch of Hampshire are dealing with two murder enquiries and their resources are really heavily tied up in that.

Somebody from the Council was telling me that he police came to a house on their road to break up a party, came with seven coppers. That’s probably half the number of police available to the City. The numbers are tiny. We can rely on the police to do some of this stuff, but we as a community have to take responsibility as well.

I just want to find out from you how has the reaction been over the last few days with schools reopening to certain year groups over the last few days?

I think everybody has been pleased some more kids can go. I think all the schools will be up and running by the 15th. Different schools have done different things. On the whole, I’ve heard from schools that the parents have been incredibly supportive, making the right decisions to make sure their kids are safe. I think that’s really good so I think it’s going well but we’ll just have to see how it develops over the next few days, it’s only the third day in there.

On Monday, nationally, we heard about the attendance rate being between about 40 and 70 percent?

I don’t know the exact number here in Portsmouth, I’m sorry. I always expected it to be lower than that. A lot of parents have talked to me about how worried they were about taking their kids to school too early.

Do you know of many instances of it being the other way around in terms of parents changing their minds [about not sending their children back]?

Yes, we’ve had issues. For instance, with parents who are key workers, who have in the past said, ‘No, we are okay, we are not going to be sending our kids to school’ now wanting to. The trouble is we haven’t got space for them because somebody else has come forward and taken that space for their child. So, we do have things changing all the time and schools manage it. They manage these things all the time and I trust that they’ll do so again and do it well.

I know it’s only three days in, but have you heard of any teachers having bad experiences?

I haven’t, no. On the whole, all the feedback I’ve had is how pleased teachers are to see the kids again and how committed they are to making sure the kids get a good education, but also remain safe.

Do you think this is something that will become sustainable for the coming weeks?

I think it’ll change over time. I think it is likely that we’ll get to the point where you might be able to get a third of the kids in school at once. You probably can’t get any more than that because there just isn’t the space for the kids to do social distancing in the numbers if every kid turns up at school. We are going to get part-time rotas, whatever the government might think about part-time rotas, I think it’s going to happen anyway.

This week we’ve seen the introduction of the parking regulations being enforced once again and the temporary bike lane that’s open now along the Eastern Road. [Can you give us an update?]

So, I think people, on the whole, are fine with taking steps back to normality and that means the resident parking zones are back in. They tend to be very popular with people who live in the local area. Once they’ve got a parking zone, nobody ever wants to have it removed again. We’ve never had an area say ‘No, please take it away’, so people are pleased to get that back, pleased to be going back to normal.

The bike lane, I think, is an interesting experiment. The government has given us some money to do some of these experiments when traffic volumes are down a bit, and so [it’s] one lane of the Eastern Road, southbound, from where the bridge comes onto the island down to Tangier Road. That’s all two lanes at the moment, we are taking a lane out to see if that might encourage cyclists.

It’s an experiment, we’ll see how it works. If it works well and it doesn’t cause traffic chaos then that might be something that we’ll keep for the longer term.

We’ll have to review it and take it out if it does cause traffic chaos. It’s been very good to get some money from the government to do these sorts of experiments which we couldn’t normally afford but it’s good to learn and see if we might be able to do things a bit differently.

[Editor’s note: UPDATE, 13.35, 5th June: On 4th June, Portsmouth City Council reversed their own decision to introduce a temporary cycle lane on the Eastern Road from 15th June. See report on this update at the end of this article on the Pompey Street Space campaign.]

It’s amazing how much learning has gone on already.

We normally have 1300 staff at the Civic Offices, I think the view now is that maybe we can cope with 250 and we don’t need to see the offices like that at all in the future.

But that’s a learning curve for when we are out of the other end of it. And a few people will have to work on their internet connections before that.

This article was update on 4th June, 14.30 to include the Council’s u-turn on its own proposal for a temporary cycle lane on the Eastern Road.


This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 3rd June 2020, and has been edited for clarity and length.

Listen to the full interview over at Express FM’s website, and subscribe to the weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, or listen live every Wednesday, 6pm-7pm.

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Image by Sarah Cheverton.

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